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You've been counting stars, now you're counting on me
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The fight did not go how Aaron had expected. Specifically, he was entirely unprepared for Tom and Phil to battle their way toward him. He didn't have enough time to duck fully out of view. Didn't really have time to do anything but get a few feet out of the way. He was standing right there, right next to the fight, with a front row seat as Tom actually managed to give Phil a good jab. The wounded boy toppled over, letting loose a cry, and hit his head on the ground. He stopped moving. Was he dead? Had Tom actually done it, actually killed someone? Had Aaron's plan worked?

Regardless of if it had, he didn't feel so good about things. All of a sudden, Tom wasn't a minor threat anymore. He wasn't a small deal. He was a full-on fighter, a potential killer, and, above all, within arm's reach of Aaron, still slightly illuminated by the distant glow of the flashlights. The gun was wobbling again. Breath in. Breath out. Stabilize. Aaron had the weapon pointed at Tom now. Had the other boy seen him? It was only a matter of time.

But... no, this was insane. Aaron couldn't shoot Tom. After all, the boy had just been defending himself. Only acting reasonably. No, they had to run. Tom was useful, that much was sure. But he was dangerous, too. There was too much to process. Just too much.

And then, Nick was there. He grabbed Tom, spun him, in the almost shadows, in the dark, and, for a second, Aaron's gaze locked with that of his ally. Aaron's gun was perfectly still, now pointed at Nick's head. Aaron could see the fear in Tom's eyes as Nick disarmed him. Could see so clearly, could imagine what would happen. It was simple. A flick of the trigger, a bang, Nick falls dead. No trouble. Certainly no morals keeping him from doing it. Nick was a murderer. Soon to be a double murderer, if he got his way with Tom. It came in a flash. Perfect clarity. Aaron knew exactly what he had to do.

He lowered his gun, shot Tom a shrug and a wink as Nick slammed his victim into the wall headfirst.


Sorry, Tom. Looks like you're taking one for the team.

Aaron turned and started walking, heading back out of the caves, back into the early morning, back to his team. The part of his team that hadn't abandoned him.


Good thing Nick hadn't noticed Aaron yet. Good thing it was dark, and there was nobody there, nobody to see the smile slowly spreading over his face. Nobody to watch as he abandoned his erstwhile companion to the hands of a murderer.


Sometimes, things did work out for the best, it seemed. What Aaron had realized in that moment, that second when he could have pulled the trigger, could have saved Tom and removed a menace, was quite simple. Tom was worth a hell of a lot more to the group dead.


And, oddly, Nick was worth more alive. In a day, Nick would be announced as a killer. Tom as his victim. The group would be devastated. Well, maybe not, since Tom wasn't exactly the most popular guy in the world, but dammit, Aaron would be devastated for them. He'd make them devastated. Make them angry. Make them want revenge, fear for their lives, imagine Nick Reid behind every corner, waiting to grab them if they left the safety of the group. Because, after all, it was true, wasn't it?


In a manner of speaking, it certainly was. There were killers everywhere. Too many people had wandered off alone already. Aaron was willing to bet that at least one of the others who had declined his offer to team up—Francine, Rekka, Machine-Gun-Lily, the guy from the woods, and the stupid girl—had already been wasted. Likely more. They weren't playing this smart. Weren't going to have any hope of escaping. They deserved what they got. Just like Tom did. Tom had been a liability. A danger. A constant irritant. Aaron would've probably had to shoot him anyways. Nick had spared him the necessity, and at the same time, provided Aaron with a double helping of motivation for his team. A martyr and an enemy.


Any good story began like that. Some terrible villain hurt the heroes, maybe killed someone important to them, and they banded up for revenge. Revenge was a fine goal. Of course, Aaron had already had his, letting Tom (the rebellious traitor) die. The others would be upset, though. They'd want to get back at Nick. Want to do something. Or, maybe it would just help them have the strength to see their escape through. Yes. That was how he'd play it. Tom hadn't been abandoned. He'd died heroically. He'd known that Aaron was their only hope. He'd died to protect his leader, loyal to the end, a shining example, had nearly turned the tide, but then cruel, villainous Nick Reid had taken his life. Yet, even then, he had held the killer, screaming at Aaron to run, to save the others, to tell the cameras that Tom loved his family.


The story just needed a little verisimilitude. At the exit to the tunnels, Aaron knelt, and, gun still in his right hand, ready in case of surprises, he dipped his left index finger into the dirt. Rubbed it in his eyes, just a little. They stung, teared up, and he rubbed them clean again, smudging his face, tracing it with tear tracks and residue. Then, for a little color, he smacked each of his cheeks, hard enough to sting. Good. He would, of course, be back in control by the time he found the others—and just where were they, anyways? He'd left them some time ago—back to the calm, confident leader they expected, but he would have a quiver in his voice, seem sadder, perhaps nearly, but not quite, break down as he related the story of Tom's heroic end.

And nobody would dare question it, especially once the next announcements hit. Nobody would dare speak poorly of Tom, insult the memory of one who died to save another. For the rest of their stay, every time someone flinched, showed weakness, acted up, he'd just need to remind them of Tom's sacrifice, and ask them what their fallen compatriot would say.

Turns out, Tom had been the most valuable ally Aaron could have had.

((Aaron Hughes continued in Where Do You o From Here?))
((Post order change and GMing approved. Jennifer's keeping her slot in the post order.))
Juliette Sargent drawn by Mimi and Ryuki
Alton Gerow drawn by Mimi
Lavender Ripley drawn by Mimi
Phillip Olivares drawn by Ryuki
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